We might be happy – but we're not all in it together

Measuring wellbeing is a nebulous business - and what can be done with the data?

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How happy are you, out of 10? It's a weird question. You and I might be in roughly the same state, except you might give it an eight because you don't like the idea of not being contented, and I might give it a six because I'm self-indulgent enough to think my life could get even better. The very act of asking yourself might make you suddenly anxious that you are not as cheerful as you ought to be, and therefore a mark lower on the scale than you might have been when you weren't thinking about it. The human condition is hard to quantify, and hard to explicate, and harder still to do anything about.

All of that makes for a strange policy goal. Still, David Cameron has decided that where Proust failed, the Office for National Statistics may succeed, and so we're giving it a go. The study of our well-being published yesterday is supposed to give an indication of how we're doing. According to the figures, the answer is: sort of all right, actually. Our economy might have double-dipped, but our moods have stayed pretty even. (On average, we give ourselves a 7.1, a figure that seems about right: the kind of happiness that comes with a nice cup of tea, say, rather than a trip to the Maldives.)

The ONS suggests a key factor in that surprising good cheer is that, whatever else has been going on, employment's held up pretty well – and having a job is essential. That's a heartening conclusion, not least in the way that it suggests we're not quite as dismally materialistic as it can often seem. But like I said, this is a nebulous business. If people feel better with jobs, should we transform the system to aim for full employment above all other goals? Lots of people feel chipper after a major sporting summer like this one, for example. Does that mean we should divert resources from the welfare state to fund more of them?

The answer to both questions is plainly no. And this points to a possible wider conclusion it's important to knock down before it gets any purchase. Whether an austerity programme is essential or not, no one who supports such a policy should do so on the basis that it doesn't really do anyone any harm.

Those of us who avoid the worst of it will be fine however brutal the cuts, it's true; but for a minority who find themselves facing the consequences personally, the impact will be enormous. Most of us are all right, most of the time, and whether we are at a 7.1 or a 7.0 is surely beyond the Government's purview. The real question is how to look after the ones who never ask themselves how happy they are because they're too busy trying to survive.

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